Wednesday, July 10, 2013

White House Down (2013) – Review

Review: White House Down is quite entertaining, but its overall quality is greatly undermined by a predictable and overly ridiculous third act. The film is about DC cop John Cale – a man trying to put his life back together and again cultivate a relationship with his daughter, Emily, after being away for most of her life (three tours in the Middle East). She is highly interested in politics and especially the current U.S. President James Sawyer. To get back in Emily’s good graces, Cale decides to take her along with him to the White House where he is interviewing to become a member of the Secret Service. The interview does not go well, as Cale is not nearly qualified enough, but to make the most of it Cale and Emily stay for a tour. Suddenly, a paramilitary group seizes control of the premises, killing all of the President’s protective detail. Now, it is up to Cale to not only keep his daughter safe but also protect the President.

Director Roland Emmerich sure seems to enjoy reigning wanton destruction upon the White House – he even pokes fun at himself with a great reference to Independence Day. With White House Down, Emmerich still maintains the big, entertaining action but with a smaller scope, as all of the action in the film (more or less) takes place on the grounds of the White House. This is really its best aspect. Sticking with his protagonists in a confined space escalates the stakes and pulls the audience in.

Emmerich also does a good job creating character moments for Cale and his daughter in the first act, as well as for President Sawyer, which provides dramatic reference points for the audience, allowing them to relate to the characters. White House Down, despite the cartoon-like violence, still is dramatically engaging because the audience does have a stake in the characters (and really this is what saves the film from ruination). However, for all the good work Emmerich does with the protagonists, the villains are completely generic and seem to only exist to cause trouble, thus they are nothing more than a plot device (their rational is so tired and cliché that it is laughable). Having villains this shallowly written greatly takes away from both the overall dramatic impact of the film (leaving it to purely play as spectacle, which is never as satisfying) and the emotional journey of the protagonists. The villains here might as well have just been inanimate objects.

Also, the film basically turns into Die Hard once the narrative gets going. John Cale even starts to look just like John McClane by the end. Rehashing and borrowing from past films is nothing new (far from it), but this almost feels like it is a reboot of the Die Hard franchise. And as it is basically the same movie (a movie every action fan has seen no less), White House Down becomes very predictable – which is not a terrible thing if the characters are strong, but they are fairly weak here leaving the film to be plot driven and action based. But, the audience already knows the plot, so that just leaves the action, which is entertaining but again cartoonish (and thusly is in desperate need of strong characters to help ground it emotionally and dramatically). Therefore, while there are good moments and aspects of the film, as the narrative progresses the flaws become more and more noticeable and egregious.

This all leads into the third act. For the first two acts, Emmerich holds everything together with some good character moments, quick pacing, and entertaining action with a lighter/fun tone. Suddenly, with the third act, the motivations of the villains and the specifics of the story become important components to the film. The heroes (and the audience) need to know the stakes – why is it so important for them to stop the villains, but the villains are basically cardboard cutouts who have preposterous tacked on tales of woe to motivate them who suddenly amplify the stakes to world wide catastrophe levels (somewhat ruining the more intimate drama that had worked so well for the first two acts). The film turns from what seems like a personal vendetta to some crazed whacko out to blow up the world (which is much less interesting). Also, Emmerich tries to come up with some mind-blowing twist that is telegraphed (and boring) and falls flat (ultimately seeming just silly). Everything that was good in the first two acts is essentially trashed in favor of something stupid and bloated.

White House Down does have its merits. It works somewhat well in the Die Hard mold and is for the most part entertaining (with fun action and protagonists). However, for anyone taking more than a superficial interesting the narrative, the third act’s lazy absurdity (from a character and narrative standpoint) is offensive.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Roland Emmerich does make grand action films that really are not meant to be much more than escapist action movies, and to this end White House Down is a suitable addition to his filmography, and probably one of his better films (that said, and despite its historical inaccuracies, The Patriot is still my favorite of his work).

Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker’s score does not standout, but nor does it take away from the dramatic impact of the film. It does its job, reinforcing the tone and dramatic moments. Anna Foerster’s cinematographer also fits the tone of the film well. The lighting is on the brighter side, as Emmerich does not what the film to feel overly dark or intense emotionally. Kirk Petruccelli’s production design is fantastic. The whole White House feels authentic, allowing the audience to focus on the characters and action. If anything, it is Petruccelli’s sets that do the best job of grounding the action in reality.

The film has a strong cast, but not all the characters are given much to do. James Woods and Jason Clarke have a lot to offer as actors, but the film asks them to create villain performances out of nothing. In this light, they do an adequate job (especially Clarke who almost seems menacing). Richard Jenkins and Maggie Gyllenhaal elevate their characters due to their own acting ability, but are both also not given much to do. Nicolas Wright is great in a small (and sort of silly) comic relief role. Much like she did with Oz the Great and Powerful, Joey King turns in a strong performance in support. If the audience relates to John Cale on any level, it is thanks in most part to her good work. Jamie Foxx at first seemed like a surprising choice to play President Sawyer as he does not immediately strike one as being Presidential, but he is very good in the role. As the film’s tone dictates, he still keeps it light, but there is also a weight to his performance and internal decision-making as the character. Channing Tatum is also good as John Cale (basically doing his impression of John McClane – but it works). Physically, he fits the part and he does a good job mixing comedy and drama in his performance.

Summary & score: White House Down is entertaining, but ultimately feels like a disappointing remake of Die Hard. 5/10

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